Adventure, family tradition pulls crowds to Roaring River

Wednesday, March 6, 2019
For mom and son Tessie and Austin Cox, of Wheaton, Friday was their first day fishing on opening day, sitting on one of the walls downstream from the hatchery. "It was pretty shocking. I didn't think it would be that busy," Tessie said. Both had a fish caught, but they released two others to keep fishing. Tessie said they arrived at 6 a.m. and decided that wasn't early enough for the first day of trout season. Murray Bishoff/Cassville Democrat

More photos from Opening Day may be found at: https://www.cassville-democrat.com/gallery/34387.

Cold weather holds down turnout for opening day

The hearty and the adventurous threw caution aside and journeyed into Roaring River State Park’s fabled canyon for another glorious day of fishing on Friday for the opening of trout season.

Bob Mitchell, middle, fires the Opening Day gun at Roaring River State Park Friday. With him were Paul Spurgeon, left, Roaring River Hatchery manager, and State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick. Kyle Troutman/editor@cassville-democrat.com

Temperatures in the 20s leading up to the gunshot to start trout fishing, plus the weekend threat of snow, thinned the crowd for Barry County’s most striking tradition. Yet parking extended back to the park entrance by 6 a.m., hardly suggesting anything but a banner day. Only a mild wind wound down along the riverside, a blessing in 29 degree temperatures, making conditions more inviting than warmer days.

Trout tag sales, however, saw a typical Friday opening. By the gunshot at 6:30 a.m., 1,197 adult tags had sold and 205 for children. That compared to 1,173

adult tags and 243 for children at the last Friday opening in 2013. The previous Friday opening in 2002 saw a higher tally, with 1,530 adult tags and 270 for children. A long line of customers kept the concession store staff hopping for more than the last half hour before the big moment.

More than 1,000 anglers hit the banks at 6:30 a.m. to take in the start of trout season Friday. By 11 a.m., more than 1,500 had purchased tags. Kyle Troutman/editor@cassville-democrat.com

Once veteran newspaperman Bob Mitchell fired the starting gun, the anglers, again lined shoulder to shoulder on the banks downstream from the falls, went to work. Visual reports showed at the start, fish began biting, but that soon died down, and the anglers, eager to corner the progressively more elusive lunkers, got down to business.

One hundred lunkers had been released for opening day, as large as six pounds. Only two lunkers were caught in the first hour, and one of those weighed 8.5 pounds and came from downstream, where it had been living longer than that day.

For many, the fish were almost an afterthought, or an excuse to get the family together in a jolly ritual.

Roie Hudson, left, of Cassville, pulls in a trout while fishing with his friend, John Rosenbalm, of Monett. Kyle Troutman/editor@cassville-democrat.com

Mitchell attended every Opening Day from 1953-1996 in his capacity with the newspaper.

“I’m always taking the picture, so firing the gun was alright,” he said. “I bet I could do it better in the summer time. There were two bullets that didn’t fire, and I told [Hatchery Manager Paul Spurgeon and State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick] those were the Republican bullets. But, I would sure do it again. I have a soft spot in my heart for Roaring River.”

Mitchell said over his four decades of coverage, the one thing he will never forget is when a bald eagle flew over him.

“I was taking pictures down at the lower end, and this bald eagle flew down about tree top high all the way up the stream and left,” he said.

Mitchell said also in that time, the park has changed, but only some.

“Not a lot has changed, but the baffles are better now, and the swimming pool is gone,” he said.

Mitchell said the 29-degree morning was typical of the time of year, and he had been to many Opening Days that were even colder.

“It might warm up during the day a bit where you could shed a layer, but I’ve been to Opening Days where it was so cold it would freeze the eye of fishermen’s rods,” he said. “They’d have to dip it in the river and let it thaw out before they could cast.”

Down by the water, locals who come to the event every year were making good ground catching fish from the start. Roie Hudson, of Cassville, was one of those locals.

Hudson has been to more than 40 Opening Days and gets to enjoy it just a bit extra, as every Opening Day is his birthday.

“I was born on March 1, 1953, so we’ve got about 15 people out here celebrating my birthday with me,” he said. “It’s a tradition for us just like anyone else, and we started it many years ago.”

Hudson takes his Opening Day rituals seriously, as he showed up to the Park Store at 5 a.m. Thursday to get in line for a tag.

“I was in line for No. 4, but I let a couple people go ahead of me so I could get the 007 tag,” he said. “I’m a big James Bond fan.”

Hudson said he starts at the same hole every year, and his biggest catch was a 7-3/4-pounder about four years ago.

Fishing with Hudson was his friend, John Rosebalm, of Monett.

“It’s all about friends and family,” he said. “My nephew has come in from Iowa for 23 years now, and we’ve brought in people from Cincinnati and Texas.”

“None of us have brains — we just like to fish,” Hudson said.

Rosebalm said his biggest is a 5-3/4-pound trout, but for their group, it’s not a competition.

“We always throw those big ones back,” he said. “They don’t taste as good, and you can’t really mount them, so we put them back so someone else can catch it and have the fun we have. We had one of our guys catch three lunkers on Opening Day, and he threw them all back. We didn’t even weigh them — just took pictures and let them loose.”

The group does, however, put on another friendly competition.

“We do compete for the smallest catch,” Rosebalm said.

Not everyone at the park comes for the fishing. Danny Smith, new owner of Copy Cat in Cassville, was walking around the park taking in the event for the first time after helping serve coffee on behalf of the Cassville area Chamber of Commerce. He was also handing out wooden coins with Roaring River art burned in.

“I have about 100 of these coins I’ve been giving to people, and I’ll have more at Copy Cat next week,” he said. “If someone brings their tag into the store, I’ll give them one.”

Smith worked in graphic design in northwest Arkansas before buying the Cassville business, a move he said was a good one.

“I really like Cassville because it’s a slower pace,” he said. “People are so much nicer and have more patience. It’s almost been hard for me to get used to.”

When it came to the spectacle of Opening Day, Smith was at a loss for words.

“I’m just amazed,” he said. “There’s a lot of fishermen here, and I would have never known.”

While he enjoyed the event, Smith was skeptical if he would ever cast a line of his own.

“This is alien territory for me, but maybe one day I’ll give it a shot,” he said.

Nancy Babbitt, a teacher in the Webb City school district, stood pole in hand next to her seated mother, Nancy Wiles, who had come on opening day for the first time.

“When I told my boss I wanted off on March 1, she knew immediately what it was for,” Babbitt said.

“I think it’s great,” Wiles said. “Everyone is really friendly, and it’s beautiful as always. And I caught a big one!”

Some of those came with a year of planning and organizing.

“My buddies and I have been coming on opening day for the last 20 years,” said Wendell Boone of Tulsa, Okla. “For seven years we’ve got a cabin, and this year we got two for the dozen of us.”

As for why they do it, Boone said, “I don’t know, you tell me. It’s more like we get out and act like a kid with our buddies. We’re not a very mature bunch. Some of us know how to fish. I don’t. One of the guys has a birthday. What we catch we cook at our evening fish fry.”

The birthday “boy,” adult Mike Luttrell, said he had made the trip for the last 15 years on opening day, first coming as a 7-year-old. He assured the success of the evening fish fry by landing a lunker weighing 6.65 pounds.

Stephen Coceljak, of Kansas City, came with three generations of his family and the Sestrich family, eight adults and five children, including grandchildren.

“I’ve come for the last 20-some years on opening day,” Coceljak said. “Forty years ago, we first came one summer. We were coming back from New Jersey and took the southern route and found this place. We stayed at a friend’s and fell in love with the place. I always said you had to be out of your mind to come here on opening day. Now I’m one of them.”

The Coceljak and Sestrich gangs also rented two cabins.

Often the banks offer a rainbow of school colors: Cassville gold, Monett purple and Aurora red. Very little of that could be found in the colder temperatures. Camouflage green and grays took over and daylight slowly flooded the valley.

This year, it seemed the banks held fewer locals and more people for a distance: Oklahoma, Kansas, Kansas City and Arkansas anglers proved easy to find.

Among the crowd was Mike Sutherland, deputy director of state parks, in from Jefferson City. This was Sutherland’s first trip to Roaring River on opening day, having previously viewed the spectacle at Montauk and Bennett Spring.

“I’m making sure a person who comes to a state park will have a great time and a good experience,” Sutherland said. “What I see is families. I’m observing people making memories for a lifetime. Their kids will be coming back. It’s quite a deal.

“Every one of the parks is special in its own way. It’s very different here. There’s a festive atmosphere. There’s tradition here. We got here a little before 5 a.m. That’s late. There were people everywhere, getting their spot. That’s really cool. It’s a big event, a community event. You can feel that too.”

Mike Fotenopulos, of Springdale, Ark., said he has fished on Beaver Lake and on White River. For him, coming to Roaring River on opening day had become a family tradition.

Lorie Bell, of Strafford, who likely had a trip of equal distance to go to Bennett Spring, said she came to Roaring River because it offers “the best fishing in Missouri.” Bell was accompanied by her friend, Dedra Lair, a first-timer for the event. Both were eager to get their poles in the water.

Eight-year-old Bentley Trammell, fishing with his dad, Dakota Trammel of Nixa, and his uncle, Alan Fischer, a former Cassville resident, now of Carthage, also viewed the event with a first-timer’s wonder.

“I’ve fished here before,” Bentley said. “There’s a lot more people here than I thought. There’s a lot of fish. They’re hard to get, but I like challenges.”

The crowd offered more challenges than some wanted. J.D. Messenger, of Pittsburg, Kan., came for the third time on opening day, all at the invitation of the same friend.

“It’s too crowded for me,” Messenger said. “I’ve spent half my time untangling my line.”

Kevin Yount, of Aurora, returned for his 34th year on opening day. He had come this year again with father and a friend from high school.

“This is the only time I see my high school friend,” Yount said. “I’m just hanging out with the guys and catching some fish.”

Tim and Tammy Sapp of Diamond, married at Roaring River 13 years ago, have come back for the last 10 years on opening day, making the trip a special family tradition.

Bryan Allphin, from Verdigris, Okla., was back for the sixth year on opening day. This year he shared the experience by bringing Cody Miller, 11, with him. Miller declared without hesitation, “I like the fishing!”

As the fishing extended beyond two hours, many had their four-fish limit. Several said they threw one back so they could keep fishing. Asked for their secret in catching fish, Dustin Stellwagen of Monett said, “Patience is the key.” His fishing partner, Bill Logan of Monett, added, “That, and maybe some breakfast.” Larry Zebert, of Pierce City, added, “Keep your fingers warm.”

“I try to come on opening day as often as I can,” said John Hammond, of Monett. “I’ve come 20 times in the last 30 years. It’s craziness, with crazy people. It’s fun to come and be in the atmosphere.”

Casey Rogers of Springfield, fishing with his son, Miller, and his brother, Chad Rogers of Joplin, perhaps summed it up best.

“It’s March 1,” he said. “I don’t know what to do other than be here.”

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